A Campaign Sinking to New Lows

The Republican presidential campaign has reached new lows for crassness, but Michael Winship sees something more sinister lurking in the ugliness.

By Michael Winship

For a politician or a journalist, there was a time when citing the classics — as long as it wasn’t done in a pedantic or pompous manner — was a mark of wisdom and experience. If a candidate or reporter does it today, there’s a good chance they’ll be trolled and ridiculed for high-handed pretension. Cue Donald Trump shouting, “Loser!”

But in April 1968, there stood presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy, speaking to an inner city crowd at the corner of 17th and Broadway in Indianapolis. He had just told them the horrific news that Martin Luther King, Jr., had been assassinated. People fell to the ground in shock and despair, others angrily shouted for violence and revenge.

Billionaire businessman and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Billionaire businessman and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Kennedy calmed the spectators. He spoke — without notes — for nearly five minutes. “What we need in the United States is not division,” he said. “What we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.”

He quoted Aeschylus, the poet and dramatist of ancient Greece:

Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget

falls drop by drop upon the heart,

until, in our own despair,

against our will,

comes wisdom

through the awful grace of God.

Kennedy concluded, “Let’s dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.” That night, Indianapolis was one of the American cities that did not erupt in bullets and bloodshed.

Fast-forward to 2016. If, as the saying goes, campaigning is poetry and governing is prose, this year’s GOP presidential race has degenerated into a cheesy, dirty limerick. There’s Donald Trump insulting the size of Marco Rubio’s mouth and ears, and Rubio making fun of Trump’s spray tan and small hands. Not exactly the age of Aeschylus, is it?

And here’s Trump’s on-again, off-again, tepid dismissal of former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke’s support for him. On Friday: “David Duke endorsed me? OK, all right, I disavow, OK?”

Two days later: “Just so you understand, I don’t know anything about David Duke, OK? … I don’t know anything about what you’re even talking about with white supremacy or white supremacists. So I don’t know. I don’t know — did he endorse me, or what’s going on? Because I know nothing about David Duke; I know nothing about white supremacists.”

Hard to imagine Trump pulling this off on a street corner before an angry black crowd in Indianapolis. (And remember it’s coming from a man who knows damn well who David Duke is; back in 2000, Trump said he abandoned a possible run for president on the Reform Party ticket in part because one of its members was “a Klansman, Mr. Duke.”)

It’s all enough to make you book the next boat to Nova Scotia. As Evan Osnos writes in the current New Yorker, “There may be no better measure of the depravity of this campaign season than the realization that it’s not clear whether Trump’s overt appreciation for fascism, and his sustained salute to American racists, will have a positive or negative effect on his campaign.”

CBS Chief Executive Officer Les Moonves.

CBS Chief Executive Officer Les Moonves.

Then this, from hardworking journalist Lee Fang at The Intercept: “Les Moonves, the chief executive of CBS, celebrated Donald Trump’s candidacy for the second time on Monday, calling it ‘good for us economically.’ Moonves… described the ‘circus’ of a presidential campaign and the flow of political advertising dollars, and stated that it ‘may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS, that’s all I got to say.’

“‘So what can I say? The money’s rolling in, this is fun,’ Moonves continued, observing that the debates had attracted record audiences. The CBS media executive also riffed briefly about the type of campaign advertising spending produced by such a negative presidential campaign. ‘They’re not even talking about issues. They’re throwing bombs at each other and I think the advertising reflects that.’

“Moonves added, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this and this is going to be a very good year for us. … It’s a terrible thing to say, but bring it on, Donald, go ahead, keep going.’”

Of course, this is not the first time that Moonves has made comments like this; in 2012 he famously said, “Super PACs may be bad for America, but they’re very good for CBS.” And Lee Fang points out that in February Moonves told investors, “Looking ahead, the 2016 presidential election is right around the corner, and, thank God, the rancor has already begun.”

This disintegration of public discourse, egged on by 24/7 news cycle and the media’s lust for cash and the provocative sound-bite, is nothing to cheer about. And of course in Moonves’s case, there is a perverse irony that as head of CBS he runs a company once praised as the Tiffany Network that, among other pursuits of quality, usually valued the integrity and truth telling of its news division above almighty profit or the pinheaded perspective of a bullying charlatan.

It was that network’s Edward R. Murrow who in 1954 took on Joe McCarthy, a troglodytic demagogue not unlike Donald Trump, when few were willing to speak up and warn the republic of imminent peril.

When Murrow went on the air and faced down the spittle-flecked allegations of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who had ruined lives and careers with false charges of treason, he turned the tables on McCarthy, who in one of his rants had quoted Cassius in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, “Upon what meat does this, our Caesar, feed?”

Murrow responded, “And upon what meat doth Senator McCarthy feed? Two of the staples of his diet are the investigation, protected by immunity, and the half-truth.”

Then, at the end of his broadcast Murrow said, “The actions of the junior senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn’t create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it — and rather successfully.” Sound like anyone we know?

Murrow quoted a line from Cassius that came just before the quote McCarthy had chosen: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”

Point that out to Donald Trump or one of his more fervent supporters and maybe you’ll be on the receiving end of one of the candidate’s own classical rejoinders – a sneer accompanied by a punch in the face.

Michael Winship is the Emmy Award-winning senior writer of Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, and a former senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos. Follow him on Twitter at @MichaelWinship. (This story originally appeared at http://billmoyers.com/story/when-the-poetry-of-campaigning-becomes-a-cheesy-dirty-limerick/]

8 comments for “A Campaign Sinking to New Lows

  1. Mike
    March 13, 2016 at 15:11

    Chicago? it is very strange on how all the traditional politicians are jumping in on Donald J. Trump, it is like they our all trying to set him up. It was too well organized with these protesters, and the news and all the other parties that are trying to keep Trump out, making a last ditch effort. Would not be surprise if the Republican Party was involved in organized these protesters. This type of tactics where used in the early days when the unions where started. We need change, we need Donald J. Trump, to shake up both party’s Republicans, and Democrats, to start working for the people. The Middle working class, our all getting tired of paying for the non-working welfare recipient people of the USA, and the people that come in to this country illegally, have children right away, so they can stay and also live off our society, or commit crimes against our people. If by chance Donald Trump does not win, and the people get 4 more years of broken promises, I believe there will truly be an outright Revolution, which will make the Revolution of the 1800’s look like child play.

  2. Concerned
    March 10, 2016 at 20:32

    Democracy requires civility and courtesy. When political discourse turns into verbal brawls, liberty suffers.

  3. Chuck
    March 9, 2016 at 16:10

    The irony of quoting the RFK speech on the death of MLK and how it deterred a riot in Indianapolis is not lost on me. Kennedy actively supported Hoover’s investigations of MLK. They wanted to monitor MLK “the communist.” They thought MLK was going to hurt their own “civil rights” efforts. Great white hopes.
    The Moonves quotes are interesting. That explains why CBS news appears to be imitating FOX news this election cycle. I wonder if that will cease post November?

    • dahoit
      March 9, 2016 at 19:50

      RFK worked with Joe McCarthy right?Strange tales from the crypts.

      • David Smith
        March 11, 2016 at 12:13

        RFK eagerly sought the job of Chief Counsel for McCarthy’s witch hunt team, and was very angry when Roy Cohn was chosen. RFK made public displays of his absurd grudge against the absurd Roy Cohn for years, seemingly oblivious to the fact that Cohn had unwittingly saved RFK’s political career.

  4. Secret Agent
    March 8, 2016 at 04:29

    The narrative of the political establishment these many years has been complete BS so why not call it what it is and blow it up? The establishment left and the establishment right, 2 sides of the same coin hate Trump because he calls a spade a spade and slays the sacred cows and the lumpen proletariat loves it. We all know the process is BS and we all know the fix is in. Trump seemingly doesn’t represent the establishment. He is by all accounts a decent evenhanded guy and he is a brilliant strategist and marketer. His blowhard campaign is a marketing ploy just like Obamas hope and change thing. It’s working brilliantly. Also, a lot of smart educated people, the ones who can see through the BS are on board with him because at the end of the day he doesn’t seem to have strings attached. Maybe he will deliver. If not, the worse case scenario with Trump is that he is the same as the others.

    I support him because he has balls and he is a great strategist. Sanders says pleasing things but is not bold enough to deliver on his convictions. All the rest are crypto fascist imperialists. Fuck them.

    • dahoit
      March 8, 2016 at 09:33

      Go trump go sanders!
      Author,book that trip,please.

  5. Joe Tedesky
    March 8, 2016 at 02:05

    Most of us who frequent this site don’t like the Supreme Courts ruling on Citizens United. This ruling gives way to much leverage to the upper class when it comes to deciding the outcomes of our country’s elections. It goes without saying that most of this donor money goes towards buying up a lot of TV commercial time. The big networks who sponsor the debates put on a lavish spectacle to say the least. So, it only makes sense that we now have a TV Reality show celebrity chewing up far too much underserved broadcast time with his racist rants. His blustery rambles has all but erased any other reported news of the day, and for this we all become even more less informed. It would also seem that the end game here for the super rich is to keep the masses to be so stupid that us consumers are seriously void of making any real difference towards petitioning for better government. It takes money to make money, and that’s the way it is, and so goes the news.

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